The Grassroots Ambassador

August 11, 2016

From the Spring 2016 issue of Deerfield Magazine — 

By Julia Elliot

In June of 1994, Frederick “Rick” Barton traveled to Sarajevo on his first official diplomatic trip. NATO had enforced a fragile cease-fire in the Bosnian War, the ethnic conflict in which Bosnian Muslims, Serbs, and Croats fought for territory in the former republic of Yugoslavia. Just four months earlier, he had launched the Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) at the US Agency for International Development. In Bosnia, he was tasked with proposing a program that might bring permanent peace and stability. The problem was, Barton knew very little about the country. “I essentially spent two weeks meeting as many people as I could,” he says, “and asking them what they thought was going on; pursuing the obvious questions, and not accepting any formulaic response.”

By day, Barton interviewed dozens of people at sites such as the Muslim Women’s Association, the Jewish Community Center, and on the front lines. At night, when the city was besieged by sniper fire, he pored over their responses in his hotel. A light bulb finally went off when one of the only remaining doctors on the maternity ward at the Kosovo Hospital mentioned that it was just himself and a couple nurses caring for patients. Apart from a handful of the middle class, Barton realized, almost all of Bosnia’s professionals had fled, but those who remained had talent and energy and were committed to turning the country around; for maximum effectiveness, any OTI program had to be directed toward them.

The Grassroots Ambassador

Recently, Ambassador Rick Barton stood before a group of students at a high school outside Madison, Wisconsin, speaking about the current civil war in Syria. To illustrate the severity of the conflict, he shared a video of the top Google searches by Syrians in 2015. The most common phrases searched—“hospital,” “treatment of burns at home,” “mouth-to-mouth resuscitation,” and “asylum in Germany”—are a vivid illustration of a population plagued daily by devastating violence.

“I believe there is a hierarchy of human needs,” Barton explains, “and at the very top is feeling safe.”

Whether it’s in Sarajevo or Syria or even back in the US, Barton believes physical safety is fundamental to leading a normal life. People cannot go to the market to buy food, send their children to school, or even stay in their homes if they fear being shot at, gassed with chemical weapons, or hacked to death with machetes.

“If you think that you or any of your family members are in danger,” continues Barton, “it absolutely consumes your being. The question is, how to get back to normalcy?”

Answering this question and intervening at these most desperate moments have been the backbone of Rick Barton’s career. In over 40 countries and in various official roles, most recently as Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, he has sought to reduce violence and advance peaceful democratic change, formulating a humble but effective approach to conflict resolution around the world.

After that first journey to Sarajevo, Barton remained at the Office of Transition Initiatives for five years, building the office from the ground up and managing a budget that grew dramatically from an initial $10 million.

His primary mission was to advance the US effort to bridge the gap between addressing humanitarian emergencies and engaging in classic development.

Historically, it has not been the role of either humanitarian or development agencies to resolve conflicts. Humanitarians are deliberately apolitical as means to gain the trust of locals. This works well in a natural disaster with an immediate need for aid, but not in the case of manmade disasters, on the rise since the 1990s. Such conflicts can drag on for months or years and require skillful diplomatic maneuvering to resolve. Development workers, whose projects tend to be large-scale, take years to implement, and cost many millions of dollars, typically wait until the politics have been worked out and a country is stable. And in the meantime, a society’s downward spiral continues.

The Grassroots Ambassador

Barton was forced to start thinking about how to bridge this gap early on at the OTI, when he was also called to visit Rwanda in 1994—just one month after the genocide that left an estimated 800,000 Rwandans dead and another two million displaced.

“The country was really a ghost town,” Barton says. “If you hadn’t known about the genocide, you would think there were just not a lot of people and not a lot going on.” In other words, he says, it was almost as if a neutron bomb had hit: people had been the targets, leaving the country’s infrastructure eerily intact and unnaturally quiet.

Barton figured he would do what he had done in Bosnia and start off by listening. He quickly discovered that, this time, the genocide had left survivors too traumatized to even speak. One of his early realizations was that 70 percent of the population was now women and girls. He thought that perhaps the best way to build up the country—which at the time was underwater in terms of normalcy— would be to reach out to women.

“The US model is generally ‘let’s find a leader,’” says Barton. “‘Let’s find Hamid Karzai (in Afghanistan), and then everything will be better.’ Sometimes you get lucky and you do find a George Washington—but we made a big strategic choice in Rwanda, which was that we weren’t going to find that leader. Instead, we were going to pick a large part of the population and see how we could reach them directly.”

Working in partnership with the Rwandan Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion, Barton promoted a project called Women in Transition. The program gave women the opportunity to apply for a moderate degree of liquidity to restart their lives; they had to come up with an idea and create a business plan, and in exchange they received small start up grants.

Barton tells the story of three women who pooled their grants and built a humble structure in which to grow mushrooms, which they sold to hotels in Kigali for about $50 a week. When he visited later, they had expanded the small structure to include a tiny store with a Coke machine, making it a natural gathering spot. The three women were simultaneously supporting over fiffty dependents, paying taxes to the state, and fostering a sense of community in their neighborhood: a grassroots venture that initiated healing.

Barton’s approach at the OTI, his way to bridge that gap between humanitarian relief and classic development, was to find more opportunities for what he calls “catalytic interventions.” He sought out local “energy centers”—Rwandan women entrepreneurs, Haitians eager to educate their kids, Muslim women providing relief to their Sarajevo neighbors—people who could effect change on the ground. Working directly with an indigenous population, Barton says, allows the US to create models that are expandable and that have the greatest capacity for influence.

“What we really need to do is give the people in these countries a fighting chance to make it on their own, ” Barton says.

Rick Barton was born in Buenos Aires where his father, Robert D. Barton, was an officer in the Foreign Service with his wife, Nancy, by his side. Barton grew up in Argentina, Spain, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Bolivia. Later, as a volunteer election monitor in Haiti, Ethiopia, and Poland for the National Democratic Institute, he “got a little flavor” for promoting peaceful democratic change. He says his approach to conflict resolution was also inspired by his days at Deerfield, and the example set by Frank Boyden.

“He was a guy on the move,” says Barton. “He was constantly making something happen. You had to, with 500 boys. It’s accepting that [change] is a state of life.” Barton recalls how Mr. Boyden was perpetually engaged in catalytic interventions—sending boys out to harvest crops in the Valley, keeping close tabs on each and every student, and modeling the kind of behavior where picking up trash on campus was the norm.

Graduating from Harvard in 1971, Barton returned to his home state of Maine, and a job with US Senator William Hathaway. Later, Barton ran for Congress (he ultimately lost), and in 1982 he earned an MBA from Boston University. He helped with Bill Clinton’s Maine primary campaign, and followed the newly -elected President to Washington.

After his post at the Office of Transition Initiatives, Barton served as Deputy High Commissioner at the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Geneva, and later as co-director of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; it was in 2009 that President Obama conferred the title of “Ambassador”—naming Barton US representative to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. Among his achievements there, Barton was active in the creation of UN Women and the advancement of the UN Peacebuilding Commission.

While serving as Ambassador, Barton was called upon to comment on the US Department of State Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, initiated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; it led to his most recent set of international efforts. One of the biggest findings of the review was that the State Department’s approach to crises was dated. Barton likens it to a wayward re department: “They have some lovely red trucks,” he says, “and they love to race across town in the trucks and arrive at the fire, and then they write reports about what’s happening. Sometimes they suggest that the Defense Department or USAID jump into the fire. There’s limited enthusiasm in those places for taking that kind of guidance.”

As a means to make the US response to countries facing violent crises more coherent and effective, in 2012 Secretary Clinton created the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations and appointed Barton its first head and assistant secretary of state.

Barton brought along his sensible approach to diplomacy: listening carefully, seeking out catalytic interventions, and “going local.” He prioritized working with “silenced majorities”—those politically underserved populations that nonetheless desire to have a greater voice in bringing about peaceful change—and concentrated 80 percent of the Bureau’s first- year efforts on four countries strategic to the US interests: Burma because of US business interests and its role in stabilizing the region; Kenya because it serves as the operating base for the international community in Africa; Syria in an attempt to stabilize the Arab Spring and because of its proximity to key allies (Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Israel); and Honduras because of its proximity to the US Chief among his concerns was marrying policy with practice.

“Secretary Clinton really wanted to be able to convert ideas into action, and that’s why the word ‘operations’ was placed in that name,” Barton says. “If you’re doing policy and it doesn’t land, then you might as well be an editorial writer for the Washington Post.”

The Grassroots Ambassador

Despite a commitment to action, Barton insisted on being targeted in the number of priorities pursued in each country. “It’s about being aware of the political potential but not trying to build the Great City on the Hill,” he explains. “When I see the US getting excessively ambitious, trying to do too many things, I have a pretty good idea we’re going to fail.”

In Syria, for example, the CSO has taken on modest projects, such as funding 1200 policemen who had defected from the brutal regime of King Bashar al-Assad. A British, Danish, and American coalition provided the police with a modest salary of $100 each per month to protect the opposition- controlled portion of Aleppo. Some US government officials voiced concerns that those receiving funding might be terrorists, but Barton’s response was that each policeman was vetted, they were unlikely to become an international terrorist threat at $100 per month, and that if the CSO were to put off funding the police force due to onerous background check requirements, Aleppo would potentially lose its most effective firewall against terrorists.

“These are imperfect choices,” Barton says. “Anybody who wants to have a perfect environment before they get to work in these countries is really delusional. You have to be comfortable with a degree of chaos because we’re dealing with highly chaotic situations.”

In Burma, a country plagued by long-standing ethnic disputes and distrust between civilians and the military, the CSO works with local organizations to reduce land mines, an issue that brings warring parties together. In Honduras, the CSO sought to combat an explosive homicide rate—the world’s highest in a non-conflict zone—by working with a broad- based civic alliance that supported local initiatives, taxes, and a campaign against violence. “And they built a unique alliance to fight violence in every imaginable way—from better protection of witnesses to better prosecution of perpetrators,” Barton says. In Kenya, the Bureau partnered with a range of groups including a horticulture program, an AIDS program, university students, religious leaders, and Coke bottlers, among others, to prevent election-related violence. “They all had the same goal,” Barton says, “but hadn’t found a way to work together—we were the glue.”

With each CSO success story, Barton can point to what might have happened in a more traditional US peace-building scenario. For example, regarding Kenya, he says, “We could have sent three Americans there for six months and it would have cost about 600,000 dollars. How would three Americans be better at working toward a solution than 200 Kenyans for the same amount?” The US may take on the role of mentor or coach, but Ambassador Barton is convinced that potential to solve a problem—to bring about normalcy and build a sense of security—comes from within a country’s own population.

For his part, Rick Barton has relished the opportunity to build two new organizations within the US government, first the OTI and then the CSO. But he is quick to point out that the government—and the country in general —suffers from what he calls “obese institutions” with too many layers of bureaucracy and not enough clarity of leadership or vision. He sometimes jokes that his job at the State Department was “90 percent internal diplomacy and 90 percent the problems of the world”—a job that required 180 percent, but was well worth the effort.

Barton stepped down as Assistant Secretary of State in late 2014, but he continues to advance his vision of peaceful democratic change. He currently serves as a lecturer at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, and he advises organizations and new businesses that seek to work on large public concerns.

Looking to the future, he predicts that violence will continue to be one of the world’s “meta-problems.” Terrorism, he says, is “too easy right now, and it creates phenomenal insecurity.” Cyber terrorism, as well as the fact that weapons of mass destruction will inevitably be miniaturized and therefore easier to acquire, only deepens the threat of global violence. He also points to climate change as a problem that could generate massive dislocation.

On a national level, Barton believes a great deal of work still must be done to rethink how the US engages in peace-building. “You have these big Washington industries,” he says, “and they need to be thinking about these very complex problems in a more integrated fashion. The US role needs to be defined as more catalytic rather than ‘we’ll go in and fix it for them or tell them how to do it.’”

Despite these future challenges, and despite having witnessed some terrible things in his decades of service, Rick Barton remains an optimist. “I fundamentally believe that if the problem is one that a human being creates,then another human being—or that same person —can correct it.” He has a high degree of confidence in humanity and trusts in an individual’s capacity to command their own life. Barton sees his role in making the world a safer and more peaceful place as “the person who is most likely to help others succeed”—humble words from a giant of diplomacy. //